FCC Moves to Introduce High-Speed In-Flight Internet

By Paul Riegler on 9 May 2013
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Online on an American Airlines' 777-300ER

Online on an American Airlines’ 777-300ER

The Federal Communications Commission moved to establish a multi-gigabit in-flight Internet service using newly–available airwaves in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band on Thursday.    The proposal, based largely on a petition from Qualcomm first made in 2011, would involve the creation of 150 ground stations which would beam Internet signals up to aircraft.

In its petition, Qualcomm cited the explosion in mobile broadband usage, noting that the use of mobile is “now an integral part of many Americans’ lives.”

“The reality is that we expect and often need to be able to get online 24/7, at home, in an office or on a plane,” said Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman, at a meeting Thursday. “This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices.”

The new service would provide connectivity to aircraft flying within the contiguous United States and would not work over Alaska, Hawaii, or island territories.

Currently, two types of in-flight Internet services exist: satellite and air-to-ground. Satellite systems, originally introduced by Boeing in the early 2000s, use antennas mounted on the top of the aircraft to communicate with the satellites. In contrast, air-to-ground systems send and receive signals using an antenna on the bottom of a plane.  Access points inside the aircraft allow passengers to use Wi-Fi-enabled devices while in flight.

Most current systems max out at 3 Mbps for the entire aircraft. By contrast, according to Akamai’s most recent State of the Internet report, the average Internet speed in the United States is 7.4 Mbps and many people (including this writer) have systems capable of 50 Mbps or more at home.

The proposed system would end up with a 500-megahertz band that would support speeds of up to 300 gigabits per second.  The current air-to-ground system uses a fairly limited 4-megahertz band.

The new service is likely to be several years away.  Following the FCC approval, several steps are required including public comment and interference testing.  The Satellite Industry Association, whose members use the spectrum band that the new service would share, says that there are interference concerns but Qualcomm says that they can easily be addressed.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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